Pope Francis: His solution to deafness of culture warriors

Story highlights

  • Heidi Schlumpf: Francis has tried to preach a path that can't be called "liberal" or "conservative"
  • Will he lead us to see the true dangers of the culture wars in America?

Heidi Schlumpf is a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter and teaches communication at Aurora University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Today, Pope Francis will address a joint session of Congress. It's a truly historic moment.

Sadly, the pope's first visit to the United States has already been marred by public fighting on the part of culture warriors from both sides of the political spectrum, the Catholic Church, and the media.
Philadelphia's Democratic Mayor Michael Nutter hopes to change the pope's mind on LGBT issues, while Arizona Republican Congressman Paul Gosar has threatened to boycott the pope's congressional address over the issue of climate change.
    Heidi Schlumpf
    Church activists also have been voicing their talking points. A worldwide conference of those who favor opening ordination to women met this past weekend in Philadelphia, timed to send a message to Pope Francis about women's issues, while conservative Catholics have been busy lamenting how President Obama disrespects the Holy Father by including guests who disagree with church teaching at the White House reception.
    It's all so predictable. Now, if everyone -- from members of Congress to members of the media -- would just put down their protest signs and listen to the Pope, we might be able to move beyond the culture-war mentality that takes up so much of our energy.
    "If you are different than me, why don't we talk? Why do we always throw rocks at that which separates us?" Pope Francis said in some off-the-cuff remarks to a gathering of young people in Cuba on Sunday. "Why don't we hold hands in that which we have in common?"
    Rather than close ourselves off from those who disagree with us or fight one another, people should talk about their differences, the Pope urged. Only then can we move toward a "social friendship" and begin to solve the problems that threaten the common good, he said.
    "Social enmity destroys," the pope said. "A family is destroyed by enmity. A country is destroyed by enmity. The world is destroyed by enmity. And the biggest enmity is war. And today we see that the world is destroying itself with war because people are incapable of sitting down and talking."
    While Pope Francis likely was speaking of literal war, his words could equally apply to the cultural wars in Congress and the Catholic Church. It's not that issues such as gay marriage or women's ordination don't matter. I, for one, have consistently supported both, and I admire those who are willing to fight for things they believe in.
    But what about the cost of these incessant, ideological battles, with their mudslinging and demonization? As a culture, we pay those costs in oversimplified, almost caricatured arguments and debates, in governmental paralysis and, perhaps most dangerous of all, in spiritual malaise.
    Throughout his two-and-a-half-year papacy, Francis has tried to preach and model a different approach, one that cannot be neatly categorized as "liberal" or "conservative."
    First, he avoids overemphasizing the "hot button" culture-war issues, while at the same time returning, again and again, to what he sees as core issues: the suffering of so many people around the world, especially the poor, and, indeed, our own suffering planet.
    Pope Francis does this with such authenticity that even cynical media types, like me, can't help but be impressed. Would that our elected representatives could heed his example.
    The deep differences that culture-war issues represent are real, and I'm not suggesting we ignore them. But the only way forward is to begin to hear, to really listen to, the other side.
    The one place I have experienced such respectful listening among people of widely diverging opinions is in a group of Catholic freelance writers connected through the Internet. Perhaps it was our common faith that enabled us to share the same virtual space peaceably; often we had to "agree to disagree." But we did not resign in a huff or resort to name-calling. I'd like to believe this could be possible in other groups, too -- even Congress.
    More than a decade ago another man tried to highlight the dangers of culture wars in America, insisting that there was not a "liberal America" and a "conservative America," but rather the United States of America. Yet Barack Obama was not able to end the "politics of cynicism" he decried in his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention. If anything, his presidency has served as a lightning rod for that cynicism.
    Obama instead called for a "politics of hope." Perhaps Pope Francis is the man to help lead us there.